Healthy risk-taking for “at-risk” individuals

By Kayt Sukel, science journalist, TEDMED 2014 speaker and guest blog contributor

How can we encourage individuals from “at-risk” populations to take healthy  risks, when we can’t even agree on what risk actually is?

To start, I think we need to make sure that individuals, public health systems, and educational systems are using the same vocabulary when they discuss these kinds of issues. The word “risk” is used in so many different ways—and we tend to talk about it in rather contradictory extremes. “Risk is bad. It will lead to poverty, danger, and death.” Or, “Risk is good. It’s the key ingredient for happiness and success.” The truth, as is often the case, resides somewhere in the middle. As I learned while researching The Art of Risk: The New Science of Courage, Caution & Chance, work in neuroscience shows, more and more, that risk is a key component to learning and skill building. Yet, people still tend to talk around risk. There has recently been a more conscious effort, in the psychological and epidemiological communities, to try to use the term “risk” less—especially when the parties mean “impulsivity,” “sensation seeking,” or some other manner of negative behavior.

We also need to acknowledge that there is risk in every decision one makes, every single day. While the science shows that risk is necessary for learning and growth, that doesn’t mean it’s comfortable or easy. Saying yes to everything is exhausting. Being judged for the risks you take, especially when it somehow gets linked back to the color of your skin, your socioeconomic background, or your gender, is infuriating. Educators and other stakeholders need to understand that, for at-risk populations, putting yourself out there can come at a significant cost. Sure, in the long term, it may not be as great a cost as not pursuing an important professional or personal goal. But we should acknowledge that risk, especially one that makes you vulnerable to criticism and ridicule, is a scary proposition. And, if there isn’t some sort of scaffolding there (in the form of good mentorship, for example) it can be hard for at-risk individuals to see what the long term benefit of risk-taking could be. It’s important that we collaborate, as a community, to make sure that scaffolding is there–for everyone–so we do have room to encourage healthy risks.

The good news is that already have the tools in our arsenal to encourage healthy risk-taking in all populations. We’ve had them for a long time. It’s as simple as providing safe arenas in the arts, sports, and sciences where students even as young as elementary age can learn how to question, to innovate, to fail, to engage, and to move forward.

I know, it may seem like I’m contradicting myself. Risky behavior in safe arenas? What does that even mean? To me, it’s a matter of giving individuals, all individuals, opportunities to test themselves in new ways. Giving them places to do it where the cost of failure is not too great to bear. Time and time again, we’ve seen that music, art, theatre, science clubs, sports, and other extracurricular activities all provide opportunities for individuals to try new things and really work at the edge of their performance ability. This teaches those students key lessons in emotional regulation, problem solving, teamwork, personal responsibility, and perseverance. If we can make these arenas more inclusive, it’s there that we can empower females (both cis and trans) and LGBTQ populations—as well as other at-risk populations—to better understand their own strengths and weaknesses and, ultimately, develop really healthy risk-taking skills. The kind of skills that transcend the school and playground—and help them become more successful in everyday life, no matter what kind of goals they decide to pursue.

Unfortunately, these are exactly the kinds of programs that we keep cutting, both inside and outside schools. If we continue along that vein, it will not only be to the detriment to at-risk populations, but to society as a whole.

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kaytJournalist and science writer Kayt Sukel shared insights into the neuroscience of risk-taking and how play during childhood and adulthood impacts the way we make decisions as adults in her 2014 TEDMED talk, Eliminating Penalties for Playing Out of Bounds. Check out her new book, The Art of Risk: The New Science of Courage, Caution and Chance.